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One day, a princess was out walking with her women, when she spied a crowd of people listening to a rabbi teaching and telling in the market square. She wandered up to listen to what he had to say, sure that, when the people realized that a princess was in their midst, they would turn their attention from the rabbi to her, admire her beauty, bow down and honour her.
None of this happened. Instead, the people just went on listening to the rabbi, oblivious to the princess in their throng. She sighed; she shifted from one delicate foot to another; she coughed daintily; she even pretended to swoon in the heat – though very gracefully, so as not to get any dust on her fine clothes. Still the people were held by the rabbi’s words. Nobody noticed her go back to her carriage, to wait until he had finished. This was not something she was used to doing – waiting till someone else had finished! She studied the rabbi, furious with him – after all she was so beautiful and royal, and he was – well – so very, very ugly …
When the story had finished and the people drifted off, she summoned the rabbi to her. It was none other than Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah.
“It is true that you are a wise sage; I listened to your words. But why are you so very ugly? I cannot imagine why G-d would pour wisdom into such an ugly vessel as yours!”
Rabbi Joshua listened politely, and then answered by saying, “Tell me, o princess, in what vessels does your father the king store his most precious wine?”
“In clay jars, like everyone,” she answered.
The rabbi took a step back in feigned amazement. “Earthen, clay jars?” he repeated. “Just like the common men do?”
The princess nodded slowly, something niggling in the back of her mind.
“I’m sure the King could afford finer vessels than just clay jars. After all, he is rich. Surely he can afford better – silver, or even gold – for example?”
The princess hurried home to her father, and told him that he should keep his wine in gold or silver vessels – not old clay ones like the common people. The king agreed, and had his servants pour all the wine into silver and gold vessels. It did not take long for the wine to sour. The king tasted one of his finest vintages, and spat it out all over his food. Then he bellowed for his daughter.
“Where did you get this stupid advice? The wine is ruined!”
Of course the princess told him it was the ugly little Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah.
The king sent for the rabbi and demanded to know why he had given his daughter such wicked and malevolent advice.
“Your Majesty, your daughter wanted to know why G-d would pour wisdom into such an ugly vessel as myself, and I wanted to show her that sometimes beauty can be a drawback.”
But the king replied that there were people in his kingdom that combined great talents with beauty.
Rabbi Joshua smiled at the king and said, “Rest assured that, had they been ugly, their talents would have been even better developed!”
The king returned his wine to clay vessels, and listened to the rabbi’s advice whenever a problem kept him up at night.